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Bob Phelps

Australian GeneEthics Network, c/- Australian Conservation Foundation. Fitzroy. Vic. 3065


My goal at this Conference is to look at some proposed applications of genetic engineering and its products, to see if they represent the integrated, environmentally friendly and sustainable system that is claimed. Sustainable agriculture would reduce high intensity inputs, maintain soil fertility, protect biodiversity, optimise renewable resource inputs, prevent pollution, and focus on indigenous crops.

Biotechnology cannot be a sustainable process unless it is embedded in a sustainable system, since it is only one tool among many, not a universal panacea as is often claimed.

Present gene technology innovations are a science-driven, piecemeal set of applications, based on what can easily and most profitably be done, not necessarily what is most needed.

If applications were genuinely needs-focused they would aim in a fundamental way at reforming industrial agriculture.

Ecologically Sustainable Development, or ESD, and its underlying principles should guide agricultural innovation so that social, environmental and economic factors receive equal weighting to produce balanced decisions. Decisions on future actions should not favour economy at the expense of our society and environment.

Just because something is technically possible does not mean it should be done. Prominent citizens such as Prince Charles, Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court, and former Governor General Sir Zelman Cowen, have all recently expressed their disquiet, that gene technologies are racing head of our capacity to control them. They reflect widespread community concerns.

1. It’s a myth that genetic engineering is just an extension of traditional breeding. Cross-breeding can only move the genes of related species by sexual reproduction. In contrast, gene technology can in theory move foreign DNA between any unrelated plant, animal, microbe or human, in ways that cannot occur in nature.

2. Biotechnology is also called recombinant DNA technology because it recombines genetic messages from different species to give recipients new commercially useful traits. The genes are usually from unrelated donor organisms, conferring traits that could not have been bred. Genetic engineers use restriction enzymes to cut unrelated DNA strands at complementary places. Recombined, they carry a new genetic message into a cell using an infective microbial vector or physical insertion.

3. Genetic engineers claim their technology is precise but it creates very few cells capable of becoming new organisms. One technology to create new plants fires microscopic DNA-coated bullets into target cells. About one in a thousand cells are transformed with the foreign DNA and also possess a gene for tolerance of antibiotics or herbicides. When the chemical is applied, untransformed cells are killed, leaving the transgenics to develop into new organisms. Antibiotic resistance genes remaining in commercial products could transfer to human or animal pathogens in the gut.

8. Gene technology research and development is largely publicly funded as corporate investors get a 150% tax break. Australian taxpayer spending on gene technology is more than one hundred million dollars a year, and one billion dollars to date.

Tangible benefits have been few.

The Australian Science and Technology Council reports:

“... our biological science base is remarkably strong. .. Unfortunately, our industrial strength in this new industry is barely recorded on the international scale. ... In biotechnology whoever owns the core technologies (through patents) can have effective control over all applications and their subsequent sales.”

Foreign companies will mainly benefit from local research. For example, Monsanto’s licence fee on Bt cotton is $245 per hectare, approved for growing on 30,000 hectares in 1996. The company has developed a simple litmus test to identify its transgenic seed to enforce its no seed saving rules.

9. Gene technology is promoted as a global generic technology, ready for transfer across environmental and continental boundaries. However, over US and Australian objections, members of the Biodiversity Convention began in July to negotiate an international Biosafety Protocol to try and reduce threats to biodiversity during the international transfer of engineered organisms.

10. A major threat is contamination of natural gene pools, especially of native plants which share a common genetic heritage with food crops. Engineered organisms in centres of genetic diversity, one of which is Australia, may ruin genes essential for future breeding. Shared land borders and diverse environments make it difficult to protect flora and fauna from diseases, weediness, or feral plagues. Less than 30 countries can now implement a biosafety regime.

Of 67 small scale field trial proposals in Australia, only one was rejected by GMAC. There were three unauthorised releases - pigs in South Australia, soil microbes at Murdoch University, and a Newcastle Hospital cancer patient injected with engineered vaccinia virus. No-gall bacteria to treat crown gall disease in fruit trees and roses, Tickgard vaccine, glasshouse carnations, and Bt cotton have commercial approval.

13. Industry’s emphasis on herbicide tolerance in crop plants undermines their promise of chemical free, sustainable agriculture from genetic engineering. Broadacre crops will be sprayed at higher doses and less selectively to ensure good weed kills without crop damage. Chemical use will be entrenched, not reduced. IFOAM, the organisation of certified organic growers worldwide, has banned any use of gene technologies in the production or processing of their foods.

14. Broad spectrum herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup and Hoechst’s Basta kills most plants on contact. Genes to tolerate these herbicides are being engineered into many crops, encouraging more extensive and less careful use. Roundup can now only be applied once a season in cotton fields, with guarded sprayers to put the chemical directly on the weeds.

15. Crops that tolerate up to 20 times the field strength of herbicide allow drenching of crops. More soil, water and food pollution follow. CSIRO has cotton to tolerate 2,4-D spray drift from wheat. The National Registration Authority on Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals should announce this cotton will not be registered so the research stops. Herbicide drift, 30 kms onto crops, town and natural environments, needs better management not technical fixes.

16. Transgenic farm animals are being designed to be more productive and to prevent diseases rampant among animals confined in cramped, unnatural surroundings. Pigs to grow faster and leaner on less food have extra pig growth hormone genes with human copy genes attached to act as a switch. Growth hormone production starts when farmers add extra zinc to the animal’s diet. If the gene were functioning all the time, the pigs would get arthritis and other systemic problems.

17. Unlike plants, the fertilised ova of animals are held with a pipette and directly injected with foreign DNA through a microscopic hypodermic needle. Still, successful uptakes of foreign genes into the genome are few. The piglets are tested for transgenesis and those without the foreign genes or only partly transformed must be destroyed. They are not yet commercial.

18. South Australian company, Bresagen, wants to sell its experimental pigs for commercial pork but we want the Food Authority to ban all sales of experimental products. Injectable pig growth hormone produced by microorganisms and injected daily into normal pigs for the last five weeks of their lives is already present in the Australian food supply.

19. Injectable bovine growth hormone is also used in North America to increase milk production in some dairy herds. Its use is banned in Europe and Australia. Increased rates of animal disease have been reported, and there has been a major public controversy over potential health impacts of hormone treated milk and its labelling.

Food standards and labelling are also issues. The Minister responsible for the Food Authority,

Senator Bob Woods, convened a national Food Summit on genetically engineered foods. He wants your comments on the draft proposal, out soon. Industry and the Food Authority say there is no need for a general requirement to label foods from gene technology. Process labels are wanted by 90% of food buyers and producers should join in ensuring that everyone is fully informed through complete labelling. Trust and confidence between city and country can only be built by mutual support.

21. Many gene technology products are in the food supply but the long life flavr savr tomato is the first whole food. This is a promotion for the fruit, which is labelled in the USA and sold at a premium price. The product was floury and split its skin, despite individual handling and wrapping. Monsanto has taken over Calgene which sold the flavr savr and most of the crop is now sold for canning. In the UK market the cans are labelled “Product of Gene Technology”.

22. A trivial commercial use of gene technology, promoted to portray the industry as benign, is blue roses and carnations. Melbourne-based Florigene wants to transfer a blue petunia gene to the rose. It already markets blue and long life carnations.

24. One potential use of gene technology promoted as environment-friendly, is feral animal fertility control using viruses engineered with egg or sperm protein. The virus would infect a feral species, raising antibodies against the animal’s own eggs or sperm and render it sterile. CSIRO wants fox baits, and mouse and rabbit viruses ready by 2005. But viruses may spread globally, sterilising animals everywhere. Viruses may also cross species, a threat to the fertility of other animals. This is also researched in India for human fertility control, raising serious civil rights and political questions.

25. Wild species, such as fish and oysters, are being engineered for aquaculture, and trees are being developed for agriforestry. Carp, for example, pests in many places, have extra growth hormone genes. Fish that grew quicker, were more aggressive, or changed their diet, could dramatically upset ocean or river habitats which are already under tremendous pressure.

26. Most aquatic species are relatively easy to genetically engineer because their eggs are fertilised outside the body. they are intended for use in fish farms but containment is almost impossible because of the small size and mobility of eggs and fingerlings.


This brief overview of some issues raised by gene technologies show its applications are not aimed at solving real issues for farmers. With such technologies and patents at their disposal we are likely to see companies dictating more to farmers what to produce, how and when. Industrial production processes applied to farmers and land cannot give environmentally friendly or sustainable results.


1. Australian Science and Technology Council (1996). Developing long-term strategies for science and technology in Australia, AGPS, Canberra. ISBN 0644 45804 6.

2. Krimsky, S. and Wrubel, R.P. (1996). Agricultural biotechnology and the environment: science, policy and social issues. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-06524-7.

3. Mellon, M. (1988). Biotechnology and the Environment. National Wildlife Federation, Wash. DC. ISBN 0-912186-99-2.

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